The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

5/5 stars

Immigration has been a big part of my life for the past few years–studying in the UK twice, getting married, and applying for a spousal visa in the UK means I know my way around bringing huge files of documents to what feel like basic appointments, getting fingerprinted in windowless rooms, and the abject misery of the Home Office headquarters in Croydon (named Apollo House, as if the architects would have rather launched themselves into the stratosphere than be in Croydon). But my experience as an immigrant, while at times maddeningly bureaucractic, has still very much been shaped by my privilege. It is a very, very complicated time to be an immigrant. At a time when both my home country and adopted country are embracing more and more anti-immigrant rhetoric, I decided to pick up The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio.

And oh man, am I so glad I did. This part-memoir, part-manifesto is such a compelling read, and an important one for understanding the role immigration has played in the American story. Villavicencio doesn’t seek to tell the stories of only ‘good immigrants’, but instead of the immigrants whose lives intersect with all aspects of American culture and recent history, along with her personal experiences as a DACA recipient at Harvard, often labeled a ‘good immigrant’ herself. The narrative is split into different chapters, each focused on the residents of one particular city. The water in Flint, Michigan, the dust of Ground Zero–it all comes into play. This really did open my eyes to news stories I wasn’t aware of, especially of how the recession led to many factories and farms across the US to push out immigrant workers, documented or not, for the ‘positive PR’ of saying they would only hire Americans.

This is a short read, but an impactful one. Villavicencio takes the time to set the scene and establish her subjects as humans beyond campaign promises and stock footage on the news. It also explores a lot of Villavicencio’s own life, especially her struggles with mental illness. These passages aren’t always the easiest to read, but I’m refreshed by Villaciencio’s honesty and her passion for the often-unaddressed cause of immigrant mental health, especially crucial to consider among a population that cannot obtain health insurance.

This can be a frustrating read, mostly in part due to the fact that Villavicencio can’t really tell the full stories of her subjects–people stop responding to her messages, move away, or just don’t want to be public about their status anymore. The narrative can feel a bit inconclusive, and for those who want their nonfiction to make a Big Point About Something, The Undocumented Americans might not fulfill that. But if you want to learn more about immigration beyond the headlines and the scaremongering, there’s no real subsitute for firsthand accounts, and this is one of the best out there.


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